Sketching Jesus

November 10, 2002



Sketching Jesus (11/10/02)

Rev. Gary Cox – Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

The scripture reading you heard read from the lectern this morning was from the New Testament Book called Hebrews, and it mentions some of the ancient heroes of the faith—Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel. None of these characters were flawless, and if we were to delve into their lives we could call into question the “hero” status of each and every one of them. I want to begin this morning’s sermon by taking a look at Jephthah. Let’s go back to the Old Testament Book of Judges, and see what it is that, in the eyes of the biblical author of Hebrews, makes Jephthah such a hero.

In the two or three centuries before King Saul and King David united the twelve tribes of Israel, warring tribal leaders, called judges, ruled the land. Jephthah was one such leader. Now, one thing has not changed over the past three thousand years: people then and now have been fighting over a little strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, historically known as both Israel and Palestine. Back then, the Hebrew people, under the leadership of Jephthah, were fighting the Ammonites.

To really understand this story, we must understand that in the time of Jephthah—around 1200 B.C.—the concept of monotheism—of a single God—had not entered the human imagination. It would be four or five hundred years before people in religious traditions all over the world started wrestling with the idea of monotheism. Jephthah’s God—Yahweh—was tied directly to the land of Israel, and it was Jephthah’s argument that the Hebrew people were living where their God wanted them to live—in the land promised to them by Yahweh. He told the Ammonites that they should get out of the Hebrew land, and go back to the land that their god, Chemosh, had given to them. This, by the way, was the land east of the Jordan River in what is now Jordan.

Listen carefully to this promise that Jephthah makes to the Lord—Yahweh—before he goes to war with the Ammonites: If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lords, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.”
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Now, please understand what is happening here. Our hero Jephthah has promised Yahweh that if the God of Israel will help him defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah will make a ritual sacrifice—a burnt offering—of whomever he sees when he returns home from battle. We soon learn that Jephthah shares his house with his only child—a daughter. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that upon his victorious return from battle the first person he sees is his daughter. And what makes Jephthah a hero? Well, in the words of the Bible, he, quote “did with her according to the vow he had made.” Let me be a bit more blunt: He sacrificed her to Yahweh by burning her alive until there was nothing left but ashes.

Let’s jump forward a little over three thousand years. In the middle of the 20th Century the field of Christian theology—historically the domain of whatever men were in power at the time, most recently white males of European descent—began drawing the interest of women. At some point, some of these women started questioning why biblical figures like Jephthah were regarded as heroes. These female theologians looked critically at the way Bible commentaries had been written over the ages, and they discovered something that probably all scholars knew but which few had given voice: the Bible doesn’t treat women very well.

The Jephthah story is a great example. Throughout that story his daughter is referred to only as “Jephthah’s daughter.” Consider that biblical writer’s perspective. She doesn’t even merit a name! Her only worth in this world is as a daughter, because she is in no way portrayed as any sort of hero. The tragedy isn’t that she lost her life; the tragedy is that Jephthah lost a daughter. That was even worse than losing his best cow, or a whole field full of grain. That’s what makes Jephthah such a hero—his willingness to suffer that loss in order to keep his promise to Yahweh.

Theologians finally had to admit that in Bible story after Bible story women are marginalized. In the ancient biblical world they were considered inferior to their male superiors, and in most cases they were male property, no more significant than a man’s farm animals, or house, or slaves. Suddenly these stories were being read in a new light, and meanings were being found that had been previously overlooked. The field of feminist theology really started to take off, and it is going very strong today.

As Christians, one of the primary questions we ask ourselves is, Who was Jesus Christ? The attempt to answer that question is called Christology. Christology is the centerpiece of Christian theology, and one of the most exciting elements of modern theology is the way feminist theologians have called into question all the old assumptions about Christ.

Who was Jesus Christ? The fact is each and every one of us has developed a sketch of Jesus in our minds—not just a drawing of what he looked like, but a sketch of who he was, how he acted, what he did and said. But none of us have an accurate snapshot of Jesus. The Bible doesn’t give us a clear picture—only sketches that vary from book to book. Each biblical writer was looking at the same person, but from a different angle. Mark’s Jesus was the Son of God; Matthew’s Jesus was the Jewish Messiah; Luke’s Jesus was the liberator of the poor and oppressed; John’s Jesus was the embodiment of God’s wisdom. Each of us takes those images, along with the images handed on to us by the church and by modern culture, and we create our own personal sketch.

Feminist Christology has created some new sketches of Jesus Christ. There is no single feminist Christology. But most feminist Christologies share the conviction that as Christianity developed over the centuries, something went wrong along the way.

One of the primary convictions of feminist Christology is that the church took a wrong turn when it decided salvation was a personal thing. Christianity became all about saving your own soul. In that respect it became very self-centered—almost selfish. It’s as if the very center of the Christian faith became all about me, me, me—the very attitude our faith should help us overcome! My personal favorite of the feminist theologians—Carter Hayward—defines evil as self-absorption. This self-centered faith, according to the feminist theologians, is all wrong. Salvation is a communal thing. We are redeemed as a people, as a community. We receive God’s grace not as isolated souls, but as unselfish parts of the Body of Christ—the church.

Relationships are the centerpiece of feminist theology. Who a person is, generally speaking, is the sum total of his or her relationships. We each have a relationship with God, with our families, with our nations, with our religious communities, with the world as a whole, with our very being at the most existential level, with the mystical source of life that bonds us together as one—everything about us is relational. Christianity, they say, took a wrong turn when it became all about the individual and the state of that individual’s immortal soul.

Another problem with traditional Christologies, according to feminist theologians, is the way they have glorified suffering. Penance is a big part of our theology. Confess that you’re a worthless sinner, beat up on yourself for how bad you are, and when you’re done, don’t complain if somebody else is beating up on you—you deserve it. And after all, you will receive your reward in heaven.

One of the major faults of traditional Christologies, according to this new way of viewing the faith, is the way they have reinforced dualisms. Everything is black and white. You are saved or damned. All of creation is divided into one of two camps. Light good, dark bad. Spirit good, body bad. Christians good, others bad. And through our historic biblical lens, from the story of the fall in the Garden of Eden to the New Testament admonition for women to keep quiet in church, there has been another more subtle dualism: man good, woman bad.

And this leads to the biggest problem many feminist theologians face when it comes to developing an acceptable Christology. Jesus was male. And it’s difficult to develop a Christology without Jesus. Would that be possible? Is it even conceivable to develop a Christology without bringing the male Jesus into the center of the picture? Let’s examine a couple of stories from the New Testament through a feminist lens, and see if we are given a new perspective.

This story is found in both Mark and Luke. I’ll read Luke’s version: There was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up from behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhaging stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said,
”Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, because I noticed that power had gone out from me.” When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”

The traditional way of interpreting this passage is to say it is a faith story. The key to the whole passage is the fact Jesus tells the women to go in peace—that her faith has healed her. And there is something very important there. Jesus promises us in the Sermon on the Mount that if we ask, we will be answered. If we knock, the door will be opened. This story fits that notion of humbly seeking faith and being rewarded by God.

But lets take off the glasses through which we’ve viewed this story historically, and approach it from a feminist perspective. First, biblical scholars agree that the woman in the story is suffering from menstrual problems. In the Bible, that’s what it means for a woman to hemorrhage, and this particular woman clearly has a medical problem in that regard. Second, in the ancient Jewish world, a woman was considered unclean when she had her monthly cycle. She was ritually unclean. She was not allowed in public places. She was not allowed to touch any other person. Of course, a woman was not allowed to touch a man in public in any situation. Third, this is the only place in the Bible where a person doesn’t ask Jesus to be healed, but instead takes the healing power from him without his permission.

So God’s power—the power of Christ—was there in Jesus, but evidently it was not something over which he had complete control. He did not will her to be well—she was healed before he even knew who she was. This story can get pretty complex when we start taking it apart. One thing we must ask ourselves is this: Did she think she had a right to be healed? She violated every taboo in the book. She shouldn’t have been in public, but she was. She shouldn’t have come in contact with anybody, but she would have to have pushed and shoved her way through the crowd to get to Jesus. And when she got close to him, she didn’t say, “Please Lord, heal me a sinner.” She reached out and grabbed his robe, knowing she was breaking every rule in the book.

This is a unique story, and we can view it in many ways. Yes, she is a woman of faith, and her faith makes her well. She is also a woman who is unafraid to break the rules of her society to obtain what she feels she has a right to. And to move the story out of the realm of healing stories and into the realm of theology, we could say that she recognizes her right to a relationship with God, and she demands her right to that relationship. Jesus tells people to knock on the door and they will be answered. Well, she knocks on that door with some real authority, so to speak. And she has seized that authority on her own.

The more radical feminist theologians might say that Jesus represents the male dominated system, the patriarchal world in which men had all the power, and that she willfully broke the rules of that system, claiming that power for herself. Even if we don’t want to push the envelope quite that far, we should recognize that this was not just a woman of faith, but also a woman who, both desperate and courageous, was unconcerned with her established place in society.

Interestingly, there are only two other places in the Bible where Jesus notices something happening to his power. The first is when he preaches in his hometown of Nazareth. You’ll recall that all his old friends and neighbors hear him preaching in the local synagogue and say, in effect, “Hey, that’s Joseph and Mary’s kid, and he’s claiming to be the Messiah?! Who’s he trying to fool?!” And Jesus could not perform miracles or healings because of their unbelief. He had no power when he was among them. Likewise, when he hung from the cross, with scoffers all around him, he became so powerless he said, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Okay, let’s think about this. Where is the locus of Jesus’ power? Where does his power come from? Most of us would agree it comes from God. But we could also say his power is reliant upon the community. The community. The power of God which makes Jesus the Christ wasn’t entirely under Jesus’ control. The hemorrhaging woman in the story was able to take the power from him without his knowledge. When surrounded by people who did not believe in him, he lost his power. Therefore, feminist theologians can argue that the Christ—the redemptive power of God’s love—was just as much in the community of faith that surrounded Jesus as it was in the person Jesus himself.

That’s a wonderful insight. In the first century, Jesus had the power of Christ not from God alone, but also from the faith of the community that surrounded him; and we could say the same is true today. Christ’s power in this world comes through you and me—the community of faith that proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus Christ. Jesus said that whenever two or more are gathered in his name he would be there among them. We could read that as meaning that if people are not gathered in his name, Christ is not there at all. Two-thousand years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the only door Christ has into this world is through you and me. That’s why it is so important for us to knock.

Earlier I pondered whether or not it would be possible to develop a Christology without bringing the male Jesus into the center of the picture. I won’t answer that one for you, but I will say that in my eyes, at least, while it is important for Jesus to remain at the center of my faith, it is possible to develop a Christology without bringing the maleness of Jesus into the picture. In my personal sketch of Jesus he is as far from your stereotypical male as a person can get. And the qualities he embodied that made him, in my eyes, the Christ, are human qualities that have nothing to do with gender and have everything to do with love.

Feminist Christology. It’s not for everyone—or maybe it is. Just like we never agree 100% with our traditional theologians, but are informed by the better ones, feminist theologians can also nourish our faith. Even those people who reject most feminist Christology have to give those women theologians credit for putting an emphasis on the communal and relational elements of our faith. This thing we call Christianity isn’t a private matter. After all, if Jesus had hidden himself away and privately enjoyed his unparalleled close relationship with God, his life would have been ultimately meaningless, at least to you and me.

Our faith—Christianity—is all about love; and as we balance our efforts to grow spiritually and to build God’s reign of justice and love on earth, our faith can’t be a private matter. It is relational. For that insight we can be thankful to the feminist theologians who had the courage to question 2000 years of thinking. They have provided a fresh point of view, an important new angle on the past, which should prove useful as we each struggle to create our own sketch of the one we call Lord, and in whose name we gather in this place, with thanks, and with love.